Category Archives: On the Watershed

Geeking out with Stream Team

STREAM-TEAM-LOGO-4c_2Science is cool, and laboratories are cooler.  I always enjoyed being in the laboratory at school. Watching chemicals react as they are mixed together. Or recording how the intensity of a laser beam changed when passed through saline solutions of different strength.  After many years away, I was back in the lab this weekend with Heal the Bay’s StreamTeam and it was both fun and informative!

Since 1998, scientists and volunteers at Heal the Bay have been monitoring water quality throughout the Malibu Creek watershed. Tracking nutrient and bacteria loads on a monthly basis in more than a dozen different locations. Earlier this year, they released the State of the Watershed report based upon this long-term dataset with detailed recommendations on how to improve water quality throughout the watershed.  One thing that is critical is continuing the monthly monitoring work.

I was part of the small team — mostly volunteers — that went out last Sunday to collect and analyze water samples. It was fascinating to be part of the whole process from field measurement through to the laboratory work.  We measured temperature, pH and conductivity in the field and collected samples to determine nutrient loads and bacteria count back in the lab.

Stream Team

It was great to see different parts of the watershed. From the relatively undeveloped headwaters, through the main-stem that flows through neighborhoods, to the lower reaches impounded behind an old dam that is now choked with sediment. But what was really fun was being back in the lab to process the samples. There’s something very therapeutic about the detailed and replicable work to process dozens of samples to unlock their secrets.  Adding a little of this and watching the clear water turn to purple to indicate the presence of nitrates. Or diluting the samples and encasing them in plastic pouches so the bacteria can incubate overnight and then be counted.

The results clearly show that how we live on the land has a big impact on the quality of the water. Agriculture, development, roads, sewers, septic. It’s all connected and leaves its markers behind in the water. Water that to the untrained eye looks clean. But the lab tells a different story.

If you’re interested, why not sign up for one of Heal the Bay’s training sessions and become a citizen scientists helping unlock the secrets of this watershed?  You’ll be helping out and having a lot of fun at the same time!

Bacteria samples Shaking it up

Shutting down the bay?

Santa Monica Bay
Santa Monica Bay

There is a greenhouse up in the Santa Monica Mountains brimming with new life and hope. In it, staff and volunteers of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area have dedicated countless hours growing native plants. When planted out, the vegetation will help restore the creeks and rivers that flow into Santa Monica Bay.

With the federal government shutdown and “non-essential” staff furloughed, these plants are now fending for themselves. Well, that’s not strictly true. At the last minute, the restoration ecologists trained the law-enforcement personnel in how to operate the greenhouse and water the plants. Don’t get me wrong. I am sure they can do a good job of it — but they also have thousands of acres of closed parkland to protect. I fear they will be busy elsewhere.

It’s a small example of the impact the shutdown is having on our work to protect and restore the waters of the Bay. But then multiply it by each area of impact — the research into the sea lion die-off earlier in the year that is now halted, the EPA staff who are no-longer working on beach pollution and storm-water issues, the Coast Guard vessels now drastically cutting back on routine patrol — and it starts to add up. The longer the impasse lasts, the greater the cumulative impact on the Bay, and the bigger (and more costly) the hole we’ll have to dig out of. That’s a cost we will all have to bear as the politicians go about their dance in D.C.

Of course, the Bay does not have a bank account, so it will pay the price differently — in lost opportunities that further delay the day our local ocean is fully healthy.

Meanwhile, we’re continuing to do our bit to safeguard the Bay, quietly and calmly with your help. And with fewer federal employees out there working on the same goal, we’ll have to stretch a little further to cover the gaps. We couldn’t do it without your support. Thank you!

To learn more about how you can help, consider attending one of Heal the Bay’s regular volunteer orientations.

On the Watershed

40% of LA is paved
LA is 40% paved over

It’s Wednesday and that means I need to move my car from the north side of the street between the hours of 12 noon and 3 pm. If I remember, the street sweeper can work its magic.  If I forget, I risk a fine. That had me thinking of watersheds. Bear with me.

The concept of a watershed is pretty simple — it’s an area of land where all water falling within it drains to a common point. It’s also the name given to the boundary demarcating this area. Whether we know it or not, we all live within a watershed.  Healthy watersheds provide a home for countless creatures and give us clean water. Start to mess with a watershed — by building in it, damming it, logging it, mining or drilling in it — and you start to impair the health of the watershed and the quality of its water. Unfortunately many watersheds around the world are suffering today. And in turn, so does anything that lives there — including us.

It’s hard to image that a heavily urbanized area is also a watershed. Fly over LA and all you see are buildings as far as the eye can see. To me, it couldn’t get more different from northern California and its thick blanket of forest.   But both are watersheds and both suffer from degradation that affects the health of the watershed and the quality of its water. In turn, poor water quality and degraded watersheds, struggle to support life and provide us with clean, drinkable, swimable water.

In northern California, rural roads that dump sediment into creeks and a legacy of aggressive logging are obvious signs of an impaired watershed. Millions are being spent fixing these problems so salmon and other animals can once again thrive.  Down here in Los Angeles, it’s different. I now live in a highly urbanized environments where I almost never see a creek, let alone a fish swimming in it.  For 28 years, Heal the Bay has led the charge to clean up Santa Monica bay and its watersheds. At first it had to tackle the acute problems, such as the dumping of untreated wastewater in to the Bay that was killing sea life and sickening surfers. Today, the challenges are more those of a chronic malaise. We’ve triaged the worst of it, and now we have to deal with the underlying causes — foremost is how we deal with storm water that flushes directly from the street to the bay, untreated, carrying the toxic debris of urban living with it.

Because in most regions all water flows to the ocean, the health of the bay is an indicator of the health of the region and its watersheds.  When we can swim in the bay 365 days a year and know that it provides a rich environment for the countless sea life beneath the waves, we know we’re doing our job. While huge strides have been made over the past 28 years, there’s a long way to go to complete the task of healing Santa Monica bay.

And that brings me back to street sweeping.  Moving your car once a week is a simple act that helps keep the watershed just that little bit healthier.  Every bit of trash swept up is one less piece that is dumped in the bay.  And what’s true down here, is also true in your neighborhood. As all oceans are really just one body of water, so we all live in the same watershed. And to me that’s a powerful thought as I move my car and help protect the ocean along the way.

Storm Drains flow straight to the Bay
Storm Drains flow straight to the Bay